Why is it that the only people who seem to love your prose are those without the power to purchase and publish it?
Your parents love it.
Your friends are impressed.
Your spouse thinks it ought to be a movie.
To them you can do no wrong. You have a gift, a knack—they don’t know how you do it.
They wish they could turn a phrase they way you do, come up with that word, paint literary pictures like that, show life the way it really is.
When I was a teenager, not even old enough to drive yet, I read my sports reporting to my mother on the way to the newspaper office. I regaled her with a dozen different adjectives for how high school wrestlers in as many weight classes defeated their opponents.
She shook her head admiringly as I breathlessly listed Jones defeating Smith, Green obliterating Miller, Tilden smashing Burke, Caldwell drilling Vickers, and on and on.
With her waiting in the parking lot, I took the stairs two by two, bounding into the sports editor’s office, triumphantly handing him my copy and settling in across from him.
He would always kindly break from whatever he was doing, give my story a quick read, and tell me what worked and what didn’t, trying to make a writer of me.
Somehow he was never as impressed as Mom—and today was no exception.
He could tell I was excited about this one, and he would have been within his rights to knock me down a few pegs. Which he did. But, fortunately for me, he was kind about it.
“All these adjectives are creative,” he said, as he quickly deleted them with his blue pencil. “But they’re not the story. You’re intruding. You’ve been following this team for what, five weeks now?”
“And they’re undefeated, right? So, were any of these individual matches upsets?”
I pointed out of a couple. One kid suffered his first loss and another surprised last year’s state champ by beating him.
“There’s your story. What’d the coach say?”
“Said it was good for Burke to take a tough loss and that he still thinks he could win the state title.”
“Let’s get that in there. Telling who beat who is good, and showing by how much is news. How they did it and how hard it was, that’s interesting. But you showing off your command of adjectives, not so much, follow me?”
“Looks like eight of your twelve original inches will survive this week, so that’s eight bucks in your pocket. Next week give me the story of the meet, and give me a feature on Burke with quotes from the coach—another ten inches. And cover the basketball game between Maine East and Proviso West.”
Bottom line: your loved ones and friends are encouragers, but they’re amateurs.
We writers need to take our cues and our input from people in the know, people in the business, the ones who know what sells. They know that good writing is not a thing of adjectives and adverbs and creative writers intruding to show off their vocabularies and turns of phrase.
Good writing—writing that sells—is a thing of crisp nouns and verbs that communicate simply and directly and tell a story people can understand.
That doesn’t mean it has to be boring or carry no music. But the writer has to stay off the stage and out of the way and let the content be king.
When you need a compliment, a pat on the back, an expression of love and encouragement, show your stuff to someone who loves you and cares about you.
But when you want to write better, to learn and grow and communicate and, yes, sell—show it to an editor.
And then listen.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from someone in the business?